Danseuse étoile sur un transatlantique (Star-Dancer on a Transatlantic Liner) is one of Picabia’s most important early paintings. Both an historic and intensely personal work, it derives from the crucial years shortly before the First World War when Picabia was pioneering his own unique brand of post-Cubist abstraction. Like many of these great paintings the picture draws upon themes of dance, music and the body in motion, as well as upon Picabia’s own recent experiences on a transatlantic voyage. The painting was made in New York during the heady days of Picabia’s first dramatic visit to America in 1913. Picabia was in New York at this time to help promote the latest developments in European art at the now legendary Armory Show of 1913. This was where, alongside Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, Picabia’s new ‘abstractions’ helped to provoke the scandal that effectively gave birth to the idea of modern art in America.
A concentration of many of the key themes of Picabia’s work from this period all combined into one lyrical, evocative and colourful abstraction, Danseuse étoile sur un transatlantique belongs to a series of abstract watercolours that the artist made on the theme of his recent experiences in America and exhibited in New York at the request of Alfred Stieglitz and his 291 group in March 1913. The inventive and pioneering abstract language that Picabia developed in these watercolours, and in Danseuse étoile sur un transatlantique in particular, were subsequently, on Picabia’s return to Paris, to serve as the templates for the creation of the artist’s first two, great, masterpieces: the two, ten-foot square canvases mysteriously entitled Udnie and Edtaonisl, now in the Centre Pompidou, Paris and the Art Institute of Chicago respectively, that took centre-stage at the landmark Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1913.
The subject-matter of this pair of abstract masterpieces derives directly from the theme of a ‘star-dancer’ and an ‘ecclesiast’: two figures who have their roots in the story of Picabia’s transatlantic voyage to New York in 1913 and in the two watercolours (Danseuse étoile sur un transatlantique and its companion piece Danseuse étoile et son école (Star Dancer and Her School of Dance)) which Picabia made in memory of this voyage on his arrival in New York.
Picabia and his wife Gabrielle Buffet had set sail for New York in January 1913 aboard the transatlantic steamer the Lorraine, where, to Picabia’s disappointment, they were booked into a third-class cabin. During the voyage however, Picabia, by donning his black-tie suit, managed to gain access to the first-class barroom where, to his delight, he found himself amongst a select group of passengers. There, alongside the cigars and the champagne, he was able to enjoy the dance rehearsals of a fellow passenger. This was the then famous dancer and silent movie actress Stacia Napierkowska who was travelling on a dance-tour of New York with her troupe. Of Polish origin, Napierkowska’s risqué dancing and dynamic personality had made her an international sensation. Indeed, so suggestive was her performance that soon afterwards in New York, her tour was to be cancelled and she was to be arrested on a charge of ‘public indecency.’ During his sea-journey Picabia became a regular at Napierkowska’s rehearsals where, to his great amusement, he often found himself in the company of a Dominican priest furtively watching while also trying to conceal his interest. During a prolonged storm that laid most of the other passengers low with sea-sickness, Picabia and Napierkowska came to know each other well, having found themselves among the few on board to remain unaffected.
The personae of the ‘Star Dancer’ (Napierkowksa) and an ecclesiastic priest, were subsequently to become a central and recurring theme in several of Picabia’s most important paintings of the next two years: most notably his two great paintings Udnie and Edtaonisl. Debate still rages as to the meaning of Picabia’s title Udnie – though the subtitle ‘Young American Girl: Dance’ makes its subject-matter quite clear, Edtaonisl by contrast has long been decoded as a sequential fusion of the words ‘Etoil[e]’ and ‘Dans[e]’ and to refer to the ‘Star Dancer’ Napierkowska, while its subtitle (Ecclesiastic) no doubt points to the Dominican priest in her audience. The title ‘Edtaonisl’ also appears in Picabia’s other great painting of 1913, Catch as Catch Can, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
All of these paintings on the theme of the ‘Star Dancer’ reflect a coming together of the two themes of the dance and of religious processions that had distinguished Picabia’s first post-Cubist abstractions of 1912. Mixed with his experience of the modernity of New York, its skyscrapers, automobiles and, in particular, its Afro-American music, Picabia has in these works begun to create a radically pictorial language of abstract and abstracted form. These new works are pictures that fuse such earlier Cubist abstraction and its break-down of phenomenological form with a sense of the dynamic rhythms of the body in motion and through time and space to create a new lyrical abstraction pulsing to a tempo or pictorial structure akin to musical rhythm and determined largely by intuitive painterly impulse. ‘[The pictures] that I have made since my arrival in New York,’ Picabia was to say of this series of works, ‘express the spirit of New York as I feel it, and the crowded streets of your city as I feel them, their surging, their unrest, their commercialism, their atmospheric charm … I absorb these impressions. I am in no hurry to put them on canvas. I let them remain in my brain, and when the spirit of creation is at flood-tide, I improvise my pictures as a musician improvises music’ (‘How New York Looks to Me,’ New York American, March 30, 1913, p. 11).
Of these New York paintings it is the watercolours Picabia made dealing with music and dance that were to point the way in which the great abstract paintings made on his return to Paris would develop. In addition to the two paintings (Danseuse étoile sur un transatlantique and Danseuse étoile et son école) referring to Picabia’s encounter with Stacia Napierkowska on board the Lorraine, these New York works also include a series of pictures entitled Chansons nègre. Here, music, rhythm, dance, time, motion, the concept of displacement and of the body travelling through time and space – all the key concepts of Duchamp and Picabia’s abstraction, in fact – become completely interwoven within a lyrical form of abstraction. It is a new pictorial language expressive of an entirely modernist understanding of reality. A language that, similar to the new cinema, attempts to convey a sense of perpetual motion and to fuse moving form, sensation and experience into an entirely original pictorial language that still contains hints and suggestions of representational reality. Some observers, for instance, have detected the image of two ship’s funnels in the centre of Danseuse étoile sur un transatlantique.
In the preface to the exhibition of such radically new watercolour abstractions at the 291 Gallery in March 1913, Picabia admitted to the futility of attempting to create a completely non-objective art, but also discouraged attempts to decipher any remnants of representation in his new pictures. ‘The qualitative conception of reality can no longer be expressed in a purely visual or optical manner …,’ he wrote. ‘The resulting manifestations of this state of mind which is more and more approaching abstraction, can themselves not be anything but abstraction… But expression means objectivity otherwise contact between beings would become impossible, language would lose all meaning. This new expression in painting is “The objectivity of a subjectivity.”… Therefore, in my paintings the public is not to look for a “photographic” recollection of a visual impression or sensation, but to look at them in an attempt to express the purest part of the abstract reality of form and colour itself’ (quoted in W. Camfield, Francis Picabia - His Art, Life and Times, Princeton, 1979, pp. 50-1).
Many of the paintings on show at this landmark exhibition at 291 later went into the collection of Alfred Stieglitz and from there to The Art Institute of Chicago. This was not the case with Danseuse étoile sur un transatlantique however, which was kept by Picabia and later presented in 1914 as a gift to his friend and great champion in Paris, Guillaume Apollinaire.